the fix is in

How the state plans to deal with the struggling Westminster Public Schools

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

District and state officials have come up with a plan to improve student performance at Westminster Public Schools that gives the district’s unique academic model a chance to take hold and avoids more drastic changes at the state’s disposal.

Officials negotiated the plan — which involves enlisting the help of two outside companies — while also preparing for a legal confrontation about how the state evaluates districts.

Attorneys for Westminster schools will go before the state Board of Education on Monday to again ask for a higher performance rating. If the appeal fails, Westminster officials will present the state Board of Education with the plan for improving student achievement and graduation rates at an accountability hearing in two weeks.

Westminster Public Schools officials argue the state is not consistent in how it evaluates districts with challenging student populations. They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they show they’ve learned certain standards.

“Unique among Colorado’s school districts, WPS is being penalized for its particularly needy student population and constitutionally protected choice of the (Competency Based System),” the district’s appeal states. “The District deserves a real opportunity to implement this model under consistent expectations and in harmony with current state standards and assessments.”

After several years of low performance on annual state evaluations, the nearly 10,000-student district is the first metro area district in the state to face the possibility of losing state accreditation.

The plan that district and state officials may offer the state board would allow the district two more years to improve while it works with two companies to manage some parts of the district’s work.

The state could have chosen more drastic steps including turning management of schools over to a charter operator, recommending the district give schools more autonomy under innovation status, or forcing the district to merge with one that is higher performing.

“Charter or innovation at an individual school level may have a positive impact on student achievement and may be appropriate, however that approach alone would not be sufficient to address the needs of students across the district,” the state’s recommendation stated.

The documents from the state say that if “significant progress in student performance” isn’t shown in two years, state officials will reevaluate the recommendation.

Under the negotiated plan, AdvancEd, a consultant the Westminster district hired last year to review the district’s competency-based model, would help the district diagnose problems interfering with the proper rollout of the model and other achievement problems at each underperforming school.

After last year’s review, AdvancEd granted the district a five-year accreditation under their standards. The group also accredits Valor Christian High School, schools in the Cherry Creek School District and schools under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.

The AdvancED work under the plan is expected to take between one and three years.

The second company, Denver-based Marzano Research, would partner with the district to train and better prepare teachers to use the competency-based model.

Marzano would also create a Marzano Academy in the district to open in the 2018-19 school year as a lab school that will be run based on Marzano’s research.

Westminster officials declined to comment on the plan at this point, but noted that the Marzano group has been involved with Westminster for some time with other work around the competency based model. They also noted that the AdvancED partnership is ongoing regardless of the direction from the state.

Some efforts to improve the district already are underway.

One example: Free, full-day preschool is being offered for four-year olds at seven locations in the district for the first time this school year. Westminster is also expanding internship and concurrent enrollment opportunities for students and is working to improve a new leadership pipeline program to train aspiring school leaders. The plan document from the district also mentions a program to mentor new teachers.

Although almost half of the district’s students are English learners, the plan from the district doesn’t address any specific changes to instruction for English development, although the district notes that “inconsistent quality, fidelity, intensity, and implementation,” of instructional strategies for English learners is a root cause of performance problems in the district.

CDE Accountability Pathway Recommendation Westminster Final 4 17 17 (Text)

taking action

Commerce City students march to district building asking for a voice in their struggling school’s future

Students from Adams City High School march toward the district building April 25, 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Students at a struggling high school in Commerce City took to the streets Tuesday to let district officials know they want a new principal and a say in the future of their school.

“We’re tired of not having consistency,” said Maria Castaneda, a 17-year-old senior at Adams City High School. “We’re asking them to hear our voices. Enough is enough.”

Hundreds of students from Adams City High School, joined by a handful of parents and community members, left school at noon to walk a little more than a mile to the district’s administration building.

The district has been searching for a permanent principal for the high school since the beginning of the school year when they promoted the former principal to a district position. The district has tried twice to hire a new principal, even selecting finalists both times. In the latest attempt, the school board decided against voting on the selected finalist meaning the search had to continue for a school leader.

The school — serving about 2,000 students including more than 80 percent who qualify for free or reduced price lunch — is also one of several across the state that are facing state action this spring after more than five years of low performance. The State Board of Education is expected to vote on a plan to turn around the school and the Adams 14 School District as a whole later this spring. Full plans haven’t been made public and several students and parents said they were not informed about what will happen.

“I didn’t know about any of the meetings,” said Socorro Hernandez, the mom of one student at the school. “We’ve just heard the school could close.”

Hernandez said that although she worries that her child isn’t getting a good education at the school, she thinks closing the school would not help.

Most students said what motivated them to walk out was not having a principal this school year. Many students said they have had a different principal every year they’ve been at the school and they worry that many of the teachers or administrators they do trust are leaving. Students also said the instability means work on next year’s schedules is falling behind.

“Who knows the school more than us?” asked Genavee Gonzales, a 17-year-old junior. “I feel like our education isn’t adequate, but it’s not the teachers’ fault. They aren’t getting enough resources or support from the school district.”

Commerce City police officers and security officials from the school escorted the students as they walked along busy Quebec Parkway. Drivers, including some in big trucks, honked and waved at the students as the crowd chanted down the street.

“Whose education?” student leaders shouted. “Our education!”

Almost an hour after arriving at the administration building, Javier Abrego, the Adams 14 School District superintendent, and Timio Archuleta, one of the district’s school board members, came out of the building and answered some of the students’ questions for about half an hour.

Students asked about the future of specific programs that many credited with their success at the school, and asked about funding for arts classes that they felt were in danger.

Abrego told students the school leaders would decide on a lot of those programs, but warned students that the school is in trouble and that attendance and test scores have to improve.

“They can take us over,” Abrego told the students. “Yes, I’m bringing in a new administration and I’m going to tell them these are the things we need to do.”

Another student asked how students we’re supposed to be motivated to go to school if all the adults they form relationships with at the school change each year.

Abrego reiterated that things have to change.

Students of Adams City High School

The district is scheduled May 11 to have a hearing in front of the state board. District officials were initially pursuing a plan to give the school new flexibilities through innovation status, but the district is now going to propose that an outside company take over some portions of the school and district’s work.

The state board may also suggest the school be turned over to a charter operator. However, the state is not allowed to “take over” management of the school or district as Abrego suggested.

Some of the students promised to return Tuesday night for the regularly scheduled school board meeting.

Board member Archuleta encouraged them to continue to provide their opinions in different ways.

“You guys are critically thinking,” Archuleta told the crowd. “That’s what I ask all students to do.”

reasons vs. excuses

Westminster schools loses on appeal seeking higher performance rating

A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary in 2013.

The state’s quality rating for Westminster Public Schools will not change after an appeal to the Colorado Board of Education Monday.

The board unanimously voted to deny the appeal after minimal discussion mostly criticizing the district for blaming poor performance on minority and disadvantaged students.

“The ‘why’ students are not performing at grade level is an excuse, but what it should do is give us a roadmap to remedy that failure,” said board member Steve Durham. “It’s our job to identify poor performance and further find remedies regardless of the reasons.”

Pam Swanson, Westminster’s superintendent and school board members said the state board members’ comments were ridiculous.

“We have very high expectations,” Swanson said. “Every teacher listening to that comment was disgusted because we know that we have high expectations. We know all of our kids can get there it just takes them longer.”

The district has argued that their annual performance evaluation was not legal because it discriminated against the district’s population of large numbers of English learners, mobile students and those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

They also contend the state isn’t making allowances to account for Westminster’s so-called “competency-based” learning model, which does away with grade levels and moves students instead based on when they’ve learned certain education standards. The district believes that by placing students into traditional grade levels based on their age for testing means they aren’t measuring what students are learning.

State education department officials disputed the district’s appeal stating in part that the district has the flexibility to determine student grade levels for testing purposes.

The decision means Westminster now must go through with an accountability hearing where the state board will be required to vote on action to turnaround the district. Proposed plans for that hearing on May 4 have already been prepared.

The meeting was packed by Westminster employees. A crowd of educators from the Westminster district were watching the meeting from outside the boardroom.